INCLUDED in the State of Victoria’s budget from July 1 2001 to June 30 2002 is the first A$10m tranche of a A$140m programme to convert 2000 km of country lines beyond the electrified Melbourne suburban area from 1600 to 1435mm gauge. The state government has committed in principle a total of A$96m to the five-year project, and is seeking contributions from the federal government and from private interests to cover the rest.

Conversion of some lines in the west of Victoria - to Portland and Hopetoun, for example - followed the creation in 1995 of a standard gauge interstate link between Melbourne and Adelaide. Some lines in South Australia were also converted, but as in Victoria, others were not. New gauge frontiers appeared in both states, and at Pinaroo on the border, cutting what had previously been a broad gauge through route. Both broad gauge lines to Mount Gambier were closed after junctions at Heywood in Victoria and Wolseley in SA were standardised.

The issue came to a head after the V/Line country network was handed over to Freight Australia in 1999 (p398). In March this year, Chief Executive Marinus van Onselen announced that ’in only 20 months of ownership’ FA had ’turned around a technically bankrupt government railway’ and ’spent A$250m of investor funds in acquiring and improving the business’. Revenues were 85% up in 2000 and capital spending had quadrupled.

But the mix of gauges hampers both FA’s expansion and the state government’s plan to introduce open access from July 1, which van Onselen bitterly opposes. Murray Basin Titanium commenced production at Wemen in January and wants to export mineral sands by rail through Portland. But a post-1995 break of gauge at Dunolly makes this uneconomic, so MBT’s output goes by road.

If and when it is completed, the latest conversion will see the proportion of broad gauge country lines in Victoria drop from 73% at present to 30%. Pinaroo will become a through route to SA once again late in 2002, and Mount Gambier looks set to get both rail links back with a call for tenders by the SA government for conversion within the state.